The embrace of the cross

George Weigel

Why is the cross the most apt of Christian symbols? G.K. Chesterton offered a typically, well, Chestertonian answer in his masterpiece, Orthodoxy. A circle, Chesterton wrote, suggests infinity and perfection, but a perfection “fixed forever in its size.” By contrast, the cross “has at its heart a collision and a contradiction.” And because of that, it “can extend its four arms forever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its center it can grow without changing. The circle returns in upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travelers.”

Chesterton’s insight into the universal embrace of the cross has a long pedigree in Christian theology; the Latin and Greek Fathers of the Church spoke of the cross in analogous ways. Thus that late first century manual of Christian prayers and practices, the Didache, describes the cross as a “sign of expansion.” St. Cyril of Jerusalem picked up on that image, noting that only God could be so expansive: “On the cross,” Cyril wrote, the Son of God “stretched out his hands to encompass the bounds of the universe.” Lactantius, a Christian apologist of the late third and early fourth centuries, saw in the cross a foreshadowing of the universal Church: in Christ’s suffering, “God stretched out his arms and embraced the world, thus prefiguring the coming of a people that would, from East and West, gather under his wings.”

St. Athanasius, one of the greatest of the Greek Fathers, pondered the cross of Christ surrounded by two other crosses, and saw in that scene on Calvary the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile into the one People of God: Christ, God made man, and thus made a creature capable of standing erect and extending his hands, reaches out to the two thieves, who figuratively represent the two peoples to be gathered into the one Church. And in his reaching out, the God-man tears down the walls of division between Jew and Gentile and extends God’s covenant of faithful love to the whole of believing humanity. The cross, by pointing in all four directions, symbolizes the radical inclusivity of God’s redeeming purposes.

And thus Hans Urs von Balthasar, the 20th century Swiss theologian from whom I’ve borrowed these patristic images, suggests that the cross of Christ is the ultimate ground of solidarity: solidarity among the members of the human race; solidarity between humanity and God.

Chesterton saw a “collision and a contradiction” at the heart of the cross. Balthasar takes a different tack and sees, at the center of the cross, not so much colliding wood but the sacred heart of Jesus. The heart of Christ crucified is, Balthasar writes, the fountain of the Church: “It is at the moment when Jesus suffers the most absolute thirst that he dissolves, to become an eternal fountain.” And from that fountain pour forth water and blood, Baptism and the Holy Eucharist: the sacrament from which the Church is born, and the sacrament from which the Church lives. In handing over his sacred heart in a perfect act of obedience to the will of the Father, Jesus redeems our wayward hearts, and makes it possible for us to make a gift of ourselves — to hand over to others, in love, that which is most intimate and personal to us.

Three times in my life, I have had the privilege of praying at the twelfth station of the cross — Calvary — in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The memories of jostling one’s way through the Old City’s narrow, winding streets, the noise of the tourists, and the cacophony of contending rites and sects in the basilica all fade away. It is, perhaps, the easiest place to pray in the world — and not so much prayer in the sense of formulated words, but prayer as “practicing the presence.” At the twelfth station, we are immersed in the sacred heart of Christ.

And there we find the center of the world, and the truth of the world’s story. That is why it’s “Good” Friday.

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.